Come Sunday, two rikishi participating in sumo’s makunouchi division at the Kyushu Basho down in Fukuoka will attract much of the media spotlight, and interest from fans.
The first is, of course, the current sole yokozuna Hakuho, as he attempts to break the long-standing time record of 69 undefeated bouts set by Showa-era yokozuna Futabayama, almost three quarters of a century ago. Hakuho must win his first seven bouts to equal the record as he is now 62 unbeaten. An untarnished record as far in as “nakabi,” the middle Sunday, would then guarantee him top slot on the all time list of undefeated records in sumo.
The second is local Kyushu boy Kaio. An ozeki for an incredible 62 basho since September, 2000 Kaio has really just been hanging onto the rank courtesy rather pathetic — for ozeki — primarily 8-7 or 9-6 winning records for the past six years.
There is often talk in fan groups and among sumo writers of his ability to always manage to keep his rank even when he is so often battered and bruised — outclassed regularly, even by men far less experienced and of lower rank. There are not many sumo fans who have not heard comments surrounding his staying power as being related to sympathetic foes on a given day, particularly those at the same ozeki rank, and one online English language sumo site has even titled this theory (the) Ozeki Back Scratchers Club.
Of late though even Kaio must now realize he is making a mockery of the rank of ozeki by simply idling along, basho-in, basho-out and failing to put in any semblance of a challenge for the title.
What should have happened two or three years ago at this juncture — prior to his local basho in Fukuoka — must have happened this year. Fans of sumo the world over are praying it has; his oyakata, Tomozuna has surely put a hand on the shoulder of the ozeki, and had a word in his ear along the lines of ‘enough’s enough, time to call it a day and become an oyakata yourself’.
Rikishi do like to “hang up their mawashi” for the last time on their own turf should they be from the Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya or Fukuoka areas, as it gives hometown fans one last chance to cheer for their sumo son and thank him for his efforts. Kaio’s fans have been expecting a retirement announcement for several years. Hopefully this time he will grant them their wish, and in doing so, bring a little more honor back to the sport’s second rank where its other members (Baruto, Harumafuji, Kotooshu) do have potential title challenges in them. They can beat the yokozuna and influence the way the yusho goes.
Away from the spotlight Hakuho and Kaio will be sharing for very different reasons, there are a pair of young rikishi well worth keeping an eye on in the 3rd makushita division.
Bulgarian Aoiyama Kosuke at makushita 3 is the older of the pair at 24, and has whizzed up the ranks since his debut just 18 months ago. Winning three championships in three different divisions in the process he was defeated just once in his first 31 bouts. He suffered a losing record for the first time in May of this year but back to back winning records in Nagoya and Tokyo have put him back on track to challenge for a spot in juryo come January, among the salaried fighters of the second division.
Slightly lower at makushita 8, 22-year-old Mongolian Kyokushuho Koki has been in sumo since the summer of 2007. He has had a harder time than Aoiyama in getting past makushita foes but now, at a career high rank, is another to challenge for sekitori-hood in juryo. Of very similar build to Hakuho at the same time in the yokozuna’s career, Kyokushuho is one rikishi many long-time fans are penciling in for sanyaku status at some point in the future.
The issue of them both being non-Japanese is, of course, something that will arise when they do start moving higher and onto the radar screens of more and more Japanese fans. Claims that the locals are not strong enough or hungry enough to compete in sumo will once again reverberate around the talking heads on TV, given the lack of any Japanese in the top two ranks of yokozuna and ozeki once Kaio moves to new pastures, and the sad but very telling fact that the last Emperor’s Cup claimed by a locally born rikishi was almost five years ago! This streak will not change in Fukuoka — look for Hakuko to win another to make it 17 championships to date.
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